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Rare Turtle Hatchlings Arrive in Time for World Turtle Day

5/20/2011 3:29:07 PM

Tennessee Aquarium herpetologists have successfully reared two endangered turtle species this month. Both are considered very rare hatchlings for any zoo or aquarium.

A close-up view of the Tennessee Aquarium's new spiny turtle baby.

The Tennessee Aquarium welcomes two new turtle hatchlings. A spiny turtle, seen above, and a four-eyed turtle shown below. It is rare for these species to be reared on exhibit. Both species are considered endangered in the wild.

A close-up view of the Tennessee Aquarium's new four-eyed turtle baby.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                  Contact: Thom Benson 423-785-3007
Shell-A-Brate World Turtle Day at the Tennessee Aquarium
Recent Rare Hatchlings Add to Amazingly Diverse Collection

Chattanooga, Tenn. (May 20, 2011) - Fast-paced might be the best way to describe the daily routines of turtle keepers at the Tennessee Aquarium. Caring for more than 500 individual turtles from 75 different species keeps herpetologists constantly on the move. “I think our collection illustrates to our visitors the tremendous diversity of this group of animals,” said Dave Collins, the Aquarium’s curator of forests. “We showcase the smallest tortoise, the speckled Cape tortoise of South Africa to the giant Amazon river turtle, one of the largest freshwater turtles and dozens of other unusual species in-between.”

This time of year herpetologists are extra busy. In addition to maintaining all of the exhibits housing turtles for public viewing, they’re also keeping an eye on breeding pairs and their eggs behind the scenes. This month two rare baby turtles have appeared giving Aquarium staffers more reasons to celebrate World Turtle Day this Monday, May 23rd. “A spiny turtle hatched on May 1st and last week a four-eyed turtle hatched,” said Bill Hughes, Tennessee Aquarium senior herpetologist.  “Both species are considered endangered in the wild.”

Spiny turtles, Heosemys spinosa, have shells with distinctive pointed edges and are sometimes known as cogwheel turtles. The Tennessee Aquarium, Knoxville Zoo, Tulsa Zoo and Zoo Atlanta are the only public institutions in the United States to have successfully bred this species. This new spiny baby will remain off-exhibit until it gets a little bigger, but guests can view a rather small spiny turtle hatched in 2009 in the Turtle Gallery on Level 2 of the River Journey building.

Four-eyed turtles, Sacalia quadriocellata, get their name from the ocelli, or false eye markings that occur on the back of the head. The current U.S. zoo population of this species consists of the 28 individuals at the Tennessee Aquarium and one male at the Charles Paddock Zoo in California. “Adult males and females have different ocelli patterns,” said Hughes. “This baby’s head pattern is similar to a female’s, but so far all of the ones we’ve hatched have had the same pattern.” This hatchling will also remain off-exhibit until it gets a little larger, but guests can view two hatchlings from 2009 in the Turtle Gallery nursery tanks.

Like many Southeast Asian turtle species, spiny turtles and four-eyed turtles have been overharvested in the wild for food and traditional medicine trade. Successful breeding programs such as the Aquarium’s help maintain assurance populations in case numbers of their wild counterparts fail to rebound. Collins encourages Aquarium visitors to explore the exhibits at a turtle’s pace to appreciate the special adaptations and extremes in form of each species. “People love the snake-necked turtles, the leaf-like head of the mata-mata and the pig-nosed turtles that look like a cross between a softshell and a sea turtle,” said Collins. “When people develop an awareness and appreciation for these remarkable animals they’re more likely to help protect them.”

Strolling through the exhibits might not be enough for some turtle lovers, so five additional species make appearances in Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari. An Eastern box turtle, ornate box turtle, alligator snapping turtle, common snapping turtle and a diamondback terrapin are among the dozens of creatures visitors might encounter in this new experience. “We really try to give people a look at the whole picture of wildlife and nature around us,” said Collins. “Visitors will learn a lot about exotic animals and some native turtles in Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari. Hopefully people will leave ready to improve habitat in their backyard for turtles or other creatures.”

Did you know?
World Turtle Day began more than a decade ago by the American Tortoise Rescue.
The Tennessee Aquarium has more species of turtles on display than any other zoo or aquarium.
The Tennessee Aquarium is home to 31 of the 47 freshwater turtle species found in North America.
Look closely, more than half of the exhibits in the River Journey building contain turtles.
Passengers aboard the River Gorge Explorer see several turtle species basking near shore on every excursion in the warmer months.

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